Chief U.S. Correspondent, MBC TV
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters is a member of the IWMF Board of Directors and a well-known reporter in the Arab world. A foreign correspondent for over 20 years, she came to Washington, DC, in 2003 as a senior correspondent for Al Arabiya TV and later became the U.S. Chief Correspondent for MBC TV (Middle Eastern Boradcast Center).
She reports on U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis the Arab world, and is currently covering her third U.S. presidential election. Bilbassy-Charters has interviewed President George W. Bush more often than any other Arab journalist and is a regular contributor on the Diane Rehm Show. She currently serves as President of the White House Foreign Reporters Group.
IWMF: As a foreign correspondent, what aspects of the presidential election are you most interested in reporting?
Bilbassy-Charters: As a foreign correspondent, I am always interested in foreign policy. I often joke that the Arab world generates 60 to 80% of U.S. foreign policy, particularly since the eruption of the Arab spring. My reporting very much focuses on what the candidates say about how they would handle the situations in Syria, in Egypt, in Libya, and in Yemen as the next U.S. President.
IWMF: Issues of particular interest to women, such as the various aspects of women’s reproductive health, are playing an increasing role in this year’s election campaigns - Todd Akin’s statement about "legitimate rape" being the most recent example of that. If at all, how do you report about this particular controversy and how are these reports received by your audience at home?
Bilbassy-Charters: We report about more or less every aspect of the U.S. Presidental election that has some relevance in the Arab world. An issue like abortion is very controversial and people are interested in it, whether they are taking sides or not. The majority in the Arab world is very close to the Republican point of view when it comes to the respect for life, and they tend to shy away from the debate over giving a woman the right to have an abortion. But the Todd Akin controversy in particular is very interesting for our audience because of his remarks about “legitimate rape” and mechanisms of a female body to reject a pregnancy. Todd Akin sits on the Science Committee in the House of Representatives! His remarks fit the stereotype in the Arab world of the ignorance and misconceptions of ideologic American legislators and politicians.
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters, interviewing President George W. Bush
at the White House
IWMF: Presidential elections are very polarizing. Reporting for a foreign media outlet, how hard do you find it to put your personal political opinion aside and report on the presidential elections objectively?
Bilbassy-Charters: Elections have indeed become increasingly polarizing, especially this coming election. We know that $500 million have been spent on what analysts describe as negative ads – ads in which one candidate is attacking the other. I myself believe that it is the most important thing for a journalist to stay focused on the facts and report objectively. If you report on one point of view, you always have to try to bring in the other side to balance it out. It doesn't mean that a journalist doesn't have a say in the matter, but I am not a political analyst, I am a reporter in the first place and my job is to bring the facts to my viewers. It is up to them how they want to interpret it.
IWMF: Some believe that televised presidential debates do little in changing the outcome of presidential elections while others are convinced that debates do more to sway voters than all the ads money can buy. What do you think?
Bilbassy-Charters: I think that in general voters can be broken into two camps: there are people who have their vote set on one of the two parties, no matter what, and then there are independent voters. They are people who make up their mind last-minute, and very often don't decide until the last week before the election. I think presidential debates are very important because unlike other elections, for example in Europe and the Middle East, people in the U.S. focus on the character of their president - the likability factor is very important in American elections. I think the debates play a role in the campaigns because undecided voters get a chance to look closely at the candidates and often base their decision on memorable moments in the debates.
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters, interviewing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
at the U.S. State Department
IWMF: Until this year, only one woman has ever moderated a televised presidential debate – and that was 20 years ago. In your opinion, why do women have such a hard time breaking this glass ceiling in a progressive country like the U.S., and in the 21st century?
Bilbassy-Charters: It is really surprising to me as an Arab woman working in the United States, a leading place in the world that is considered the beacon of democracy, to find that the role of women journalists is limited and behind their male colleagues. It's just a recent development that women lead main news bulletins on primetime television. And I think it's because historically white middle-aged men were the face of the American media – and this stereotype is very difficult to break. This is not just reflected in the media but also in Congress.
The fact that Candy Crowley will be moderating one of the presidential debates is an excellent development that reflects women's seriousness in this industry. It is one of the many cracks in the glass ceiling that we want to shatter.
August 27, 2012